That, according to a Colorado local politician, is what they say in America. He was referring to the Colorado River, which is in a bit of strife, but even a quick look at the Pacific Institute’s fascinating and easy-to-read section on water conflict chronology demonstrates the world-wide applicability of the latter part of this saying.
Humanity has been going at it over water since at least 3000BC. And the disputes are coming thick and fast in the present day – from a 2007 murder in a suburban garden over water restrictions in Australia to the capture the Tishrin hydroelectric dam by Syrian rebels in 2012.
I visited one of the siphoning-off points of the (once) mighty Colorado. Just beyond Grand Lake township, in a carpark at the edge of the lake, stands the western portal of the Alva B. Adams tunnel. It is the point at which water collected from the western slope of the Colorado River is sent beneath the Rocky Mountains to emerge, a gravity-fed 33m lower, for distribution on the eastern side. Once there, it falls through five hydroelectric power plants which send some of the electricity back through a line in the tunnel for use in the pumping involved in the initial water collection.
Here’s some interesting tunnel numbers. Length: 21.1 km (13.1 miles); capacity: 16 cubic metres (550 cubic feet) of water per second ie 1,400,000 m3 (1,100 acre feet) per day. That’s a heck of a lot of irrigation, municipal and industrial usage, recreation, fish and wildlife support and rocks in one’s whiskey.
The tunnel was excavated from both ends. When it was holed through, alignment of the two centre lines was off by a mere 1.9cm (¾) inch vertically, and 1.27cm (½ inch) horizontally. Not bad for the surveying methods of 1940-44.
Alva B. Adams, a U.S. senator from Colorado, delighted the farmers on the east side of the Continental Divide with her insistence in Congress that this project was necessary. Other plans had failed to take off and those thirsty crops were awaitin’.
Now things are getting thirsty again.
About 30 million Americans in seven states depend on the water of the Colorado watershed. This growing population takes its toll through individual use and through industries that serve them. Throw in climate change and the situation is grim. For years, the US has been consuming more water from the Colorado River than the river receives from snow-melt in the Rocky Mountains. Several huge dams built on the river are emptying rapidly. The river now rarely reaches its delta in the Gulf of California.
A 1944 treaty with downstream Mexico regarding their allocation of water from the Colorado River has required reworking twice – in 1974 for water quality and in 2012 regarding quantity and timing. “We have chosen collaboration over conflict, we have chosen co-operation and consensus over discord,” the US Interior Secretary said of the revised treaty.
Many efforts are being made at the grass-roots level to conserve water. And these are having some effect. We need to remain alert about our own usage. And our tacit support of industries with high-water consumption and water-polluting practices needs consideration.
Otherwise, it will be a matter of ‘Let them drink, and grow our food with, whiskey’.